The main reason I love teaching kids how to cook is that it’s possible to include every single child, regardless of age, special needs or academic abilities. Since cooking is a tactile activity that you can break down into dozens of tasks, each child can take on easy or challenging ones. If you’re new to teaching kids, show them the task first and then let them do it on their own. Only step in to help if they are truly struggling. Maturity and dexterity differs in each child so use this list judiciously. After a few cooking sessions together, you’ll have your own in-house sous chefs! Here are a few tips for different age groups.
2-3-year-olds and up
Most toddlers enjoy helping in the kitchen and learn new tasks quickly. This age group, however, needs very close adult supervision, a lot of space and large bowls since their dexterity and motor skills are still developing.
This age group (and older) can do the following tasks with minimal assistance:
squeezing lemons or limes using a plastic juicer, washing produce in the sink, drying produce in a salad spinner, picking fresh herb leaves off stems and ripping them into small pieces, tearing up lettuce, sprinkling dried herbs and salt, using a pepper grinder, kneading dough, scooping potatoes or yams out of the skins, brushing (or “painting”) oil with a pastry brush, using the rolling pin for dough or puff pastry, whisking together vinaigrettes, squeezing water out of thawed spinach, stirring and mashing.
4-5-year-olds and up
In this age group, there is a lot of variability in motor skills, independence and the ability to focus, which means you will need to decide when they are ready to tackle the next list.
6-7-year-olds and up
This age group usually has developed fine motor skills so they can take on more adult tasks. They may still need reminders to watch their fingers during grating and peeling.
They also excel at: dicing and mincing vegetables, grating cheese, peeling raw potatoes, ginger, mangoes and other fruits and vegetables, slicing and scooping out avocados, greasing pans, using a microplane zester and measuring spoons, deseeding tomatoes and roasted peppers, draining and slicing tofu, rinsing grains and beans, forming evenly sized cookies and patties, pouring liquids into small containers and garnishing (or “decorating”) dishes.
8-9-year-olds and up
There is also a wide range of skills in this age group so you’ll need to decide if they are ready to move on or need to continue with the previous tasks.
This group can take on more sophisticated tasks such as: using a pizza cutter and can opener, scooping batter into muffin cups, scraping down the (unplugged) electric mixer bowl and food processor bowl, putting away leftovers, pounding chicken, proofing yeast, skewering food, slicing bread and chopping hot chile peppers (latex gloves are a good idea!). If you deem them mature enough, they can start to work at the stove.
10-12-year-olds and up
This age group can use a chef’s knife and start working independently in the kitchen with an adult in the house. Before they can graduate to cooking without close supervision, however, they should be assessed to see how careful they are with heat, sharp tools and food safety.
Julie Negrin, M.S., is a nutritionist, writer, speaker and educator. She has been teaching adults and kids how to cook for 15 years. For more information on cooking with kids, visit Julie’s site at www.julienegrin.com, where you can also purchase her cookbook, Easy Meals to Cook with Kids. Follow on Twitter @julienegrin.